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Banqueting House, London

Queen Elizabeth I was a frugal monarch and rarely spent money on building projects. Her successor, King James I was much more enthusiastic about making his mark with buildings. The Office of Works was revitalised under James. He had a Banqueting House built, which burnt down within a few years. Then architect Inigo Jones was appointed Surveyor to the Crown, and he built a second Banqueting House in Whitehall, London, opening in March 1621. This building was once part of the much larger Whitehall Palace, largely destroyed by fire in 1698. Royal receptions and functions took place here, as they still do today. In fact it is worth checking opening times before you visit, since the Banqueting House can be closed to the public at short notice for government use.

The Banqueting House was also a setting for extravagant entertainments called masques. These events were part theatrical play, part ball, part fancy dress party. Guests at the masque would in a symbolic way place order on the world. The first part of the production involved professional actors portraying disorder. Audience participation would then be required as the "audience" intervened to bring order and grace to the proceedings. This section of the evening would then merge into a masked ball. Ben Jonson in partnership with Inigo Jones were the best known creators of masques, which continued to be staged in the Banqueting House until 1635.




It was James's son Charles I who had the greatest painter of the day, Peter Paul Rubens, decorate the ceiling with incredible painted panels. The centre panel has James being taken up to heaven by figures representing Justice, Religion, Victory and Wisdom. The painting above the throne has James I sitting in a representation of the temple of Solomon. The paintings are a depiction of the divine right of kings. It was painfully symbolic that in January 1649, following his defeat by Parliament in the English Civil War, Charles I was brought to this same room, to step through a window onto a scaffold to be executed. Charles walked to the scaffold beneath Rubens' portrayal of a king's divine right to rule.

In some ways echoes of a monarch's god-given power continued at the Banqueting House after Charles I's death. When his son Charles II was restored to the throne by Parliament in 1660, as well as enjoying glittering receptions at the Banqueting House, he revived the tradition of "touching the king's evil". This was a ceremony where a person suffering from scrofula would touch the king's hand and thereby hope to be cured. There was also the ceremony of the giving of Maundy money on the Thursday before Easter. In this ritual, which mimicked Christ's washing of the feet of his disciples, the king would wash the feet of some of his poor subjects and then provide them with gifts and a grant of money. The giving of Maundy money continues as a royal tradition to this day - although the Queen doesn't do any washing of feet. The ceremony is a reminder of the time when monarchs were God's representative on Earth, giving out their blessings beneath a huge painting confirming their divine status.

In 1688 Parliament moved against Charles II's successor, his brother James II. James was a Catholic, and concerned about his Catholic sympathies, a group of MPs invited the protestant William of Orange to invade from Holland and curtail James's catholicising programme. In the autumn of 1688 with invasion imminent, James would watch a weather vane on the roof of Banqueting House. If the wind blew from the west William would be unable to sail and James was safe. If an easterly wind blew William could be on his way. From early November the wind swung east, and William landed at Brixham on 5th November 1688. In December James fled to the continent, and Parliament handed the crown to William of Orange and his wife Mary Stuart, daughter of James II. It was in the Banqueting House that William and Mary were proclaimed king and queen. Once again it is a strange situation to have monarchs being appointed by Parliament beneath a huge picture portraying the divine right of kings. It was also here that the Declaration of Rights was read out to the new joint monarchs. This document has taken on an almost mythic status as a milestone in the rise of Parliamentary power at the expense of royal authority. This is particularly true in America where parts of the Declaration of Rights were incorporated into the United States Constitution. The Declaration doesn't really warrant the importance placed on it, but the fact remains that a step towards modern government was taken at the Banqueting House, beneath a picture of the divine right of kings.

Copies of Rubens' painting on bone china crockery are available in the gift shop.



Opening Times: Please use contact details below.

Banqueting House is sometimes closed at short notice for government functions.

Directions: The Banqueting House is in Whitehall. The nearest main line station is Charing Cross. The two closest underground stations are Westminster and Charing Cross. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on the Banqueting House.

Access: Access for wheelchair users is difficult. There is a staircase to the Main Hall, and access via a lift through an adjacent building is only available in exceptional circumstances and by prior arrangement. Braille and sound guides are available.


telephone: 020 3166 6000 from outside the UK

0844 482 7777 from the UK

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©2006 InfoBritain (updated 11/12)